Archive for August, 2015

Science Makes Sense Week 2: Apples and oxidation, enzymes and catalysts.

August 31, 2015

While the West Coast is going through some raging fires and no rain, Northern Illinois is going through an early cooling-off period. So we have fall-like weather and our apple tree is chock full of apples. I pluck one and eat it and start reading a book. By the time I get back to it, it looks all brown … what happened?

apple treeapple core

Apples contain a lot of iron and the iron in the apple reacted with oxygen in the air to form iron oxide, almost the same way iron nails sitting outside rust and the reddish brown color is iron oxide. (Okay, do not get excited, a little iron oxide will not harm you!)The reaction is:

2Fe  + O2            →         2FeO

Iron + Oxygen produces Iron oxide

There is an enzyme in the apple which hastens the browning process. ( An enzyme is a biological catalyst, and a catalyst is any substance that hastens a chemical reaction but does not take part in the reaction) This enzyme is called polyphenol oxidase.  ‘Poly’ means more than one and ‘phenol’ is an organic compound with a hydroxyl  ( written as -OH, basically an oxygen and hydrogen atom combination). (Every third week,  I will talk about  organic chemistry,extremely vital to understanding what is around us.) Enzymes end with ‘ase’ in biology and this particular enzyme hastens the oxidation reaction, or more accurately, it hastens the transfer of electrons, and is called an ‘oxidase’. Enzymes are an interesting  topic in biology where the conversion of starch into sugar is hastened by the presence of a particular enzyme called amylase and pepsin is an enzyme that breaks down the food we eat in the stomach. In fact , the enzyme amylase is also found in our saliva and starts the breaking down of the food we eat! (Before enzymes were officially named in 1955, the enzyme words ended in ‘in’and after 1955 the ending ‘ase’  was used.)

Some fruits and vegetables including pears, bananas, avocados and potatoes contain this enzyme and turn brown when cut  because the cells are exposed to the air that contains oxygen.

For now you may surmise that the word oxidation implies reactions with oxygen. The burning of iron is also an oxidation reaction where iron combines with oxygen present in the air to form iron oxide. Many metals get oxidized this way. Silver jewellery is available in shiny ‘white’ color or oxidized when it appears grayish/blackish. ( reaction with oxygen, once again to form the grayish, blackish silver oxide) Many reactions are called oxidation reactions even without intakes of oxygen because the loss of electrons is also called oxidation.

Can this process of oxidation in fruits and vegetables be curtailed? Absolutely.  Add lemon juice or salt, or place cut apples in a tightly bound plastic sheet, or in the case of avocado, leave the seed in. These actions prevent the oxidation process and keeps the color of the fruits. These additives or processes prevents the enzyme, polyphenol oxidase ,to be exposed in the cells of the fruit/vegetable and slows down the browning.

In the study of chemistry, catalysts play an important role in certain chemical reactions. As you already know, the catalyst (just like enzymes in biological reactions ) increases the rate of the reaction but does not take part in the reaction. In the field of industrial chemicals production, we could not survive without the use of catalysts. Pharmaceutical industry, the petrochemical industry, paints, adhesives, catalytic converters in cars, to name a few, need the use of catalysts.

Enzymes play a crucial role  in so many processes that take place  in our body; in industry the biggest use is in the making of  alcohol.

Activities for middle school teachers: look for experiments to do with middle school students using different fruits and vegetables that turn brown when cut. What substances  inhibit or increase the browning?Which vegetables/fruits brown the least/most? Students can learn terms like variables and constant, while changing one inhibitor ( adding lemon juice for example) at a time and noting the difference. This could possibly be a science fair experiment.

Nuggets of information: The old saying: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is actually true. Apples are a great source of Vitamin C, full of anti-oxidants and low fat.

The supermarkets are filled with apples all the time but, surprisingly, they are not native to this area . Kazakhstan,  a country in Eurasia,(part of Europe and Asia) is where the first apples were grown. Apple seeds were brought to North America by European colonists.


Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire (2001) Random House

NRI Woman with a mission : working for early cancer detection in India

August 25, 2015

We all talk about doing something to change people’s lives, but it usually remains just talk. Few of us have the resources, will and determination to carry it through. Among these few determined, amazing women, I count my friend, Poornima. This is a story of how she achieved it.

I have known Poornima for many years. Her husband and my husband were classmates in Bangalore Medical College. She has always been a charming, friendly woman and I was immediately drawn to talk and converse with her when we first met. It was always about our children and life in general . But this year I saw a side of Poornima that means a lot to me.
A seed of an idea germinated in Poornima’ s brain and grew into a wonderful, amazing project.
Her husband, Dr. Sudhindra has been an oncologist in a place called Vineland, New Jersey , for almost forty years. Every time he would come to Bangalore, India, he would take care of patients there. One year, a woman came with an advanced case of breast cancer and Dr. Sudhindra could not help her; unfortunately she died. This affected Poornima so deeply she decided to do something about it. Even today, she gets teary-eyed talking about it.

One must remember that women in India do not wish to talk about cancer, especially breast cancer, because culturally they feel shy and diffident to discuss this sensitive subject with family, leave alone outsiders. India has one of the highest cases of cancer. In 2012 alone there were over 70,000 cases of cancer reported ( China is a distant second with about 42,000 cases) and 25-31% are breast cancers. 76% of cancer is being treated at the advanced stages where the chances of a full recovery are slim to none.
Poornima talked to her husband about investing in a customized bus with a mammogram machine that would screen women for cancer. She realized that prevention as well as early detection are extremely important. Her objective was to reach as many women in rural and urban Karnataka,(a state in southern India). Her husband liked the idea, but she did most of the legwork.
First, she approached politicians and philanthropists to determine if they would have any interest in funding this project. Everyone thought it was a great idea, however, they did not want to part with their money.  The Rotary Club liked the idea very much and decided to donate the mammography machine. Poornima and her husband funded more than 90% of the project. Poornima worked with Siemens, auto body builders and others to launch Karnataka’s first mobile mammography bus on September 18, 2013.

Though the state government did not  invest any money in this idea, they fully supported it, and it would incidentally reflect well for the state. She also spent time finding a skeleton staff: someone reliable to drive the bus,to schedule the screenings and educate the women in the villages of the process prior to the arrival of the bus. Even the colors and beautiful designs on the bus were personally decided by Poornima. The name of the organization created is painted on the back and sides of the bus: Poornasudha  Cancer Foundation.The bus is called the MOM express.(Mobile On-site Mammography) Here are some pictures of the bus and inside it where the cancer screener is visible. (The lady in blue is Poornima along with her husband, the oncologist, Dr Sudindra.)

It is extremely important to initially have camps to educate the women and give them the opportunity to come forward to be ready to talk and learn about breast self-exams, and then taking the bus  allows them to get  screened. Poornima sensed this early enough and planned the sequence of events, awareness camps followed by actual screening. (The women were given laminated Self Breast exam handouts in several languages.)She also educated herself by visiting the American Cancer Society and learning about the various levels of screening ,detection and stages of cancer.poorn1poorn2_0165

Four years ago this foundation was a thought in her head, today the bus goes through Karnataka and other neighboring states in India and has done over three thousand screenings. Every year the couple leaves USA and comes to India twice to oversee the project. The local paper where they live in New Jersey* has carried a feature about their work and so has the Times of India edition in South India.**

By 2015 the number of screenings have increased dramatically. They have now reached five thousand screenings! Here are some more recent pictures of the MOM express camps in Karnataka, India. The Poornasudha Foundation is a tax-deductible  501(c) 3 organization. Checks may be made out to :Poorna Sudha Cancer Foundation and mailed to:

Poorna Sudha Cancer Foundation
2821 Autumncrest Drive
Vineland, NJ 08361
email :

I am humbled  and awed to see their continued dedication.


**Times of India Article – Oct 13, 2014

Mom Express Camp pic 1 Aug 2, 2015mom express pic copyDSC05550

Science makes sense Week1: On Inductive, deductive reasoning, Ernie and Bert and other things

August 24, 2015

A big hello and welcome to all my science, math students, especially to the MSTQE group! Anybody who is intrigued by/ enjoys / wants to know more about science are also welcome here. Please comment and share your ideas. I am just a facilitator who wants passion and energy to flow here. I will make connections with different branches of science, include social justice issues, activities for teachers and nuggets of information. I hope teachers of science in middle school gain confidence and love for science to impart it to their students.

I am reading a very informative book called ” The Story of Science” by Susan Wise Bauer, which she says she is writing for people who are not into science. Personally I think all of us in the scientific field can enjoy her historical travels. She traces the history of science (when she says science she definitely includes math which I consider to be the queen of sciences) from several centuries BC to the present century. I will focus on her discussion of deductive and inductive methodology.

From the time of Aristotle ( 300 BC) deductive reasoning was well known.Deductive reasoning starts from general statements to specific conclusions. You start with a premise and come to a conclusion.   No experimentation was done to get to the conclusions.  The Aristotelean method survived for centuries. (This is similar to the hypothesis that students start with in a science fair experiment.) Many centuries later,( almost nineteen centuries later)  during the time of Queen Elizabeth I (1612), Francis Bacon who had served in her court started thinking a little differently. He felt that deductive reasoning could distort evidence. You could play around with the evidence to suit your hypothesis. He was of the opinion that inductive reasoning would lead to more useful information. You start from specifics, work on experimentation and then come to a general conclusion. So you may have a hypothesis at the beginning ( not at the end like Aristotle) do some experiments and then come to a conclusion. This is what we call a scientific method.  The concept of experimentation  to prove something started in the Western world with Francis Bacon.

This was continued by William Harvey who, through dissection of the human and animal bodies proved how blood circulated in the body. Again, Copernicus proved through his mathematical observations that the sun, not the earth was the center of our universe. Deductive reasoning was being replaced slowly by inductive reasoning.Remember, all these pioneers had to fight against popularly held ideas that followed deductive reasoning and were ridiculed  for their innovations.

Think about the invention of the wheel by early man( or woman?). Perhaps a piece of stone with corners was used first. Perhaps with more and more corners, the movement of the stone along a pathway improved and with time people realized that a structure with no corners or infinite corners , in other words a circular object, works best as a wheel. ( There used to be a remarkable episode with Ernie of Sesame Street philosophizing about the shape of a circle. Ernie says to Bert, ”  You think a circle has no corners or maybe, just maybe it has infinite corners?!”) Another amazing early case of inductive reasoning.

Following Francis Bacon’s inductive reasoning, we have Robert Boyle in England,  a little later in the seventeenth century, who started working with elaborate pieces of equipment to find relationships between pressure and volume of gases . So the place where he did his experiments was called elaboratories. The word laboratory, or short form ‘lab’ is derived from this word just  four centuries ago.

It is important to note that deductive reasoning is still applied in philosophy, social sciences and even sometimes in science,especially in mathematics, but inductive reasoning is a valuable additional tool for scientists.

Activity for middle school teachers: Check what the language arts teacher/ social studies teacher is covering in his/her class. If the subject is Shakespeare, or anything to do with Queen Elizabeth the first, then bring in seventeenth century Francis Bacon etc to compare inductive and deductive reasoning.

Nuggets of information: On August 17,1835, the tool we use a lot, a wrench, was patented.

The Chemist Hazel Gladys Bishop was born on August 17, 1906. She designed the first long lasting lipstick!

lab in 17th centurylab1

Here is a picture of a laboratory or elaboratory from the seventeenth century; the picture next to it is from the Chemistry Department of Northeastern Illinois University, showing present day laboratory equipment.


Bauer, Susan Wise, The Story of Science, ( W. W. Norton and Company 2015)

The 606 trail in Chicago

August 12, 2015

Recently, 606 1I managed to get a week to spend in the Humboldt Park area in Chicago. I  decided to walk every morning on a newly opened trail near the house. It is called the 606 trail in honor of the zip codes it services. This is a 2.7 mile strip covering parts  of Logan Square, Wicker Park, Buck Town and Humboldt Park areas, an east – west stretching trail  skirting Bloomingdale all the way from Ashland to Ridgeway.  I think it is also called the Bloomingdale Trail.

Every morning, I would get up and leave the house around 7am, catching the trail near Armitage. Almost every quarter mile there is an entrance/ exit ramp that allows easy access to this trail that is elevated. This was an abandoned train track that has been ingeniously constructed to serve pedestrians and runners along the blue, rubbery track and the rest left for bicyclists, young/ old parents with toddlers/ babies in strollers/ prams to run, walk or sprint.

As I walked every day for at least 3 miles, I was happy to note the diversity of traffic, young, old and different races. some would acknowledge my presence with a nod, smile or a ‘Good morning’. Apparently, when the trail was opened earlier this year in June, mobile art work was displayed and there is a plan to create more exciting projects for children soon. I observed that the west side of the trail has been well crafted with trees and shrubs and the work is slowly moving eastwards.606 5As I walked along I managed to see murals down below that adds color and beauty to this scene as well.606 7606 8This tr606 4ail has taken many years to finally come to fruition thanks to the generous contributions from people who come from different parts of the world who live here and love Chicago.  Every 0.1 mile there is a mile marker and at the end, middle and end, a lovely design indicating the four directions is also imprinted on the trail, a neat way for all of us to know how many miles we have traversed.

New York was one of the first to take a strip of abandoned railroad track area to convert it into a walking/ jogging/ exercising space for urbanites. They have also added little shops and have a wider space available even though the length is shorter.

Urban dwellers in Chicago deserve a quiet peaceful area for walks and exercise; those of us who live in the suburbs are very fortunate to have wide open spaces for recreation and hikes. The 606 is a boon for all that, plus an understanding to live in harmony with nature and learn about the various perennials planted along the trail and to acquaint one with the varying neighborhoods and its diversity  I wish this trail is not just a haven for the yuppies and the space is democratically shared by all in the Chicago land area.